At a conference last year hosted by the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, I saw the philosopher Lisa Heldke talk about how humans, like all animals, are parasites - we depend for our survival on the consumption of other beings. But instead of making that claim in a disparaging tone, she sees our parasitism in a positive light. The basis for her argument is that that all beings, including the human variety, depend on other beings for their nourishment. To be an animal means to depend on the consumption of other living things in order to sustain your own life. This view of human existence conflicts with the predominant western views of human nature, which see people as independent, agentic, rational individuals, and which uses these human traits to perpetuate the assumption of human exceptionality. The reality is that all life on earth, humans included, are interconnected through the vast planetary food web.
Heldke deftly applies this logic when she asks the provocative question: how are we to understand ourselves in the era of the microbiome? Amid research showing that there are more bacteria living our bodies than there are human cells, how does this impact our view of ourselves as independent, isolated beings? On the one hand, we serve as hosts to some microbes, which aid us and improve our health, and on the other hand we also run the risk of playing host to pathogens that can cause disease. The distinction between symbiont and parasite is therefore grey and unclear.
Regardless of whether you deem us symbionts or parasites, Dr. Heldke's main message is that by showing us that our dependence on other beings is natural, we might be able to accept it and start to include it in our discourse. Rather than seeing people as isolated beings, not only apart from one another but from the rest of the animal world, ideas about personhood ought to account for this relational and dependent aspect of our human existence. Seeing our dependence as metaphysically important starts to challenge many of the dualisms which have permeated western thought, notably the self/other distinction. We can see beings as parasites or symbionts, the deeper point about Heldke's talk was that by seeing humanity in this light, we are called to re-envision our notions of personhood that have been based on this oversimplified and outdated duality. Importantly, this leaves us with a relational and interdependent basis for defining the self.
This basis is interestingly much closer to a Buddhist view of the self. In Buddhism the self is not seen as an individual, autonomous entity, but a product of determining conditions, and emerging from a process called dependent co-arising. The process of dependent co-arising epitomizes our non-separateness from the world - in this process, reality is interdependent and all events, objects, experiences and relationships are reciprocally determining, or, mutually causative (Macy, 1979). Thich Naht Han refers to being as interbeing in recognition of this process. Since, all beings are thought to be linked and interdependent, the self/other duality is seen only as a social construct, an illusion rather than a metaphysical truth. One of the goals in Buddhist practice is actually to be able to forget and detach yourself from notions of selfhood.
Heldke urges us to stop viewing ourselves as independent entities living in isolated bubbles, and rather wants us to start to see the deep interconnections and interdependencies between humans and all living beings, as enacted through our relationship to food. Though such a perspective presents a radical departure from the way many philosophers and humanists have defined what it means to be human, it is well supported by the scientific insights of ecology and biology, and has important implications for the way we see ourselves, the planet, and the other beings with whom we share it.